How to find a dark sky location for spectacular stargazing

How to find a dark sky location for spectacular stargazing

By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory

Embrace the Darkside
For those of you who follow me on my Facebook page, you already know that I have been frustrated over the last month by the terrible light pollution in Yuma, Ariz. I complained with almost every post about my inability to see even the brightest of celestial objects and the disappointing views my visitors were getting at the eyepiece. Now that I have moved to a much nicer location near Quartzsite, Ariz., I thought it was time to talk about this issue and provide some resources that you can use to avoid this problem.

Photo: International Dark-Sky Association. When the eastern power grid failed in August 2003, it revealed something many city dwellers had never seen, a sky full of stars. Then the power came back on.

Throughout human history the night sky has been a source of wonder and beauty to every human society. Early humans used the stars to inform them about the world we live in, when to plant crops, when the herds were coming, where we were in the world and what direction to go. Many, if not most, of the stories and legends handed down from our ancestors were immortalized in the picture book of patterns in the starry firmament we call constellations.

Only in the last century, with the development and proliferation of electric lighting, did we turn our heads away from the sky and towards our technology. Gradually we added more and more artificial glare and the sky began to fade from memory. Today, especially in urban areas, the splendor and majesty of the heavens is all but lost. The sky has turned into brownish grey mud where you can only vaguely see a handful of the brightest stars. Nowadays you must journey far away from populated areas to get even a mediocre glimpse of the grandeur of the heavens. In this article I am going to tell you how to find these ever-shrinking spots and provide some resources that can help stem the tide and in some cases even reverse this blight on our collective consciousness.

Photo: Chris Fellows. Two pictures of the same object under different light pollution conditions. Top picture is dark skies condition, lower is under light-polluted skies.

First, let’s take a look at the problem in a more measurable way. Astronomers have noticed this problem since its very beginning – even a little light pollution can greatly diminish one’s ability to see faint diffuse objects such as nebula and galaxies through a telescope.  Astronomers use a well-defined magnitude scale to measure the brightness of celestial objects. It is complicated, not intuitive, and varies from observer to observer when making non-measured estimations of the overall darkness in a particular location.

In 2001, in Sky and Telescope magazine, John E. Bortle, an amateur astronomer and comet hunter, developed a scale that anyone can use to classify the darkness of the sky over their head. Now known simply as the Bortle scale, this tool rates naked eye skies on a simple 9 level scale from 1, excellent dark sky, to 9, inner city sky. This is the scale I use when I describe the sky to my astronomer friends. With this single number an experienced observer can know what to expect to see when they look up.

With that in hand, we can now use another useful tool to find good observing sites around the country. Although there are several sites on the internet that allow you to do similar tasks, I like Dark Sky Finder. On this site you can get an interactive map of the entire world that rates the sky down to a mile or two on the Bortle scale. When planning my stops, I always use this map as a weighing factor to decide on a particular destination. The National Park Service (NPS) also provides an excellent resource for finding camping locations under night skies. If you are planning on visiting one of our national parks I highly recommend visiting this site.

How can you make sure you are not “part of the problem”? As a general rule of thumb, only use light that is absolutely necessary. Why put in a 1500-watt halogen flood light when a 5-watt LED would be plenty to light your path to the driveway? Why put up an unshaded omnidirectional sodium vapor glare bomb when a downward-directed task light will get the job done? As Americans we tend to think that bigger, stronger and brighter is better. Advertisers boast about the power of their products and something way down deep in our lizard brain does the Tim Allen “Whoa-ho-ho, I need me one of those!”

Example output from Dark Sky Finder interactive map.

But do you really? I have visited Mammoth Cave National Park many times and taken all of their tours. One of my favorite parts of the tour is when the park ranger takes you into a cavernous room the size of a sports arena and turns off the lights. It is pitch black – you can’t see your hand an inch from your nose. After a minute of this you can feel the tension in the room start to climb. The ranger speaks in soft, reassuring tones and just as the collective consciousness of the group is about to snap, the ranger lights a single match.

That tiny spark of light illuminates the entire room, even yards away you can easily make out the people standing around you. At this point people stop holding their breath and some will even laugh nervously as the stress ebbs from their bodies. The point is, that even a tiny light can get the job done, so when making lighting decisions always lean towards “less is more.” The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) has many more suggestions and recommendations, including product recommendations to help you help the sky.

Well, this article is running a little long so I will get off my soapbox now. I hope this will help you find some gorgeous dark skies on your travels and make good lighting decisions. Until next time…

Clear Skies,
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory

Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)

 ##RVT824

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8 thoughts on “How to find a dark sky location for spectacular stargazing

  1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

    I can highly recommend “Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope – and How to Find Them” http://amzn.to/2Co3Z1h and “NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe” http://amzn.to/2EWPbsk .

    Either of these will get you started on the right track.

    [Amazon links added by Diane at RVtravel.com]

  2. Ralph Pinney

    Hi Chris,
    Great article.
    I’ve always been interested in astronomy but never dove in the deep end so to speak, until now.
    I must have been good because I got a nice Celestron telescope for Christmas.
    What book(s) do you recommend to get started?
    Thanks

  3. Dann Gravett

    Very nice article. Between ham radio and astronomy, two of my favorite camping activities, this article provides my two favs with great suggestions and thought.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      I am glad you enjoyed it Dann, I used to be into ham radio many years ago myself. Clear skies!

  4. R Kuhwarth

    Our son attends a music seminar in Portal, Arizona, and reports that it is a dark sky area. It is on the New Mexico border, and you have to reach it through New Mexico, as the roads in Arizona are 4WD only.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      I spent some time in the deep south of New Mexico this fall. Absolutely fantastic skies. There are several RV parks that you can drive to in the boot-heel of the state. I can highly recommend Rusty’s RV Ranch in Rodeo NM.

  5. Patti Lounsbury

    Okay, this might sound strange but there is a very good place to get a great view of the night sky near Hooper, CO. The UFO Watchtower has camping space (I have seen smaller RVs, trailers, tenters, etc) in what I think is a boondocking situation. There is very minimal light pollution as it is in the middle of nowhere on 17 north out of Alamosa. We took a brief break there to add it to our “strange roadside stops” list and found the folks there very nice. In talking to others that were there they said that they were from a university in Denver on a trip to study the night sky, not for UFOs. They said that on a clear night the photography was spectacular.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      I looked it up, Hooper is definitely in a great dark sky area. I would go there if I was in the area.

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